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A new Iranian warship adds to the quiet naval buildup on the world's largest lake

Paul Iddon   

A new Iranian warship adds to the quiet naval buildup on the world's largest lake
  • Iran introduced a new warship to its Caspian Sea fleet in early November.
  • The warship adds to a years-long naval buildup among the five countries with Caspian coasts.

Iran introduced a new warship to its Caspian Sea fleet in early November, adding to a years-long naval buildup among the five countries that share the world's largest lake.

The Deilaman, a domestically produced 1,400-ton frigate, was added to the fleet in a ceremony at the end of November. The ship is the second of Iran's Jamaran-class frigates. (The first sank during a storm in the Caspian in 2018.)

Iranian state media boasted of the new ship's sophistication, noting it can simultaneously track 100 targets of various types and launch cruise missiles.

A five-fleet lake

Russia long enjoyed naval supremacy in the Caspian. Before the Soviet Union broke up, Iran was the only other country bordering the sea, and Tehran did not significantly invest in building naval assets there until after the Cold War.

Russia's Caspian Flotilla includes Gepard-class frigates and Buyan-class corvettes, significantly larger vessels than the ships in the Caspian fleets of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. On the other hand, the other four Caspian Sea navies are more modern than the Russian flotilla.

Kazakhstan, which inherited no warships from the Soviet Union when it collapsed, has more ships in the Caspian than Russia or Azerbaijan, although those Kazakh warships are substantially smaller then their Russian and Azerbaijani counterparts. Turkmenistan is also vying for "second place" to the Russian flotilla.

Strategic depth

Russia has used its Caspian Sea-based warships to demonstrate new weaponry and its military reach. Some of those ships are armed with Kalibr cruise missiles, which were fired against targets in Syria in 2015 and Ukraine in 2022.

Launching attacks from the Caspian "gives Russia a strategic depth and a degree of protection not found in more contested areas, like the eastern Mediterranean or the Black Sea," Luke Coffey, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a US think tank, wrote earlier this year.

Russia's Caspian Flotilla has arguably grown in importance since Moscow invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Shortly after that invasion, Turkey shuttered the Turkish Straits linking the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, where Russia has a naval base.

That closure has prevented Russia from reinforcing its Black Sea Fleet with ships from its other fleets, but ships from Russia's Caspian Sea Flotilla can access the Black Sea through the Volga-Don Canal. Recognizing the importance and value of this canal, Russia is investing $1 billion in its modernization.

Cooperation and competition

All states with warships in the Caspian invariably affirm their peaceful intentions in the sea.

When introducing the Deilaman, the chief of Iran's Armed Forces General Staff said the Caspian was a "sea of peace and friendship" where Iranian forces serve "peace, security of commercial fleets, confronting terrorists and probable incidents in the future."

Despite such assertions, the five countries still have not agreed on the delimitation of the Caspian and its rich natural resources, which includes an eye-watering estimated 48 billion barrels of oil.

For Russia and Iran, the Caspian Sea has been a venue for their military cooperation, which has increased an unprecedented level since Moscow attacked Ukraine in 2022. The sea has been a critical conduit for Iranian weapons shipments to Russia, and Western powers can do little to intercept them.

At the same time, there is always the underlying risk of confrontation in the inland sea. Azerbaijan's growing military cooperation with Turkey and Israel in recent years has raised eyebrows in Moscow and Tehran.

Turkey's robust shipbuilding industry could lead to Azerbaijan getting larger and better-armed warships, giving it an edge over Russia and Iran's fleets. That could also give NATO member Turkey an unprecedented military footprint in Caspian along with its growing presence in the adjacent South Caucasus, something Iran and Russia would undoubtedly oppose.

For its part, Iran has in the past publicly protested Azerbaijan's acquisition of powerful Israeli Gabriel anti-ship missiles.

Tensions are not likely to boil over any time soon, but the Caspian, with vast natural resources claimed by countries with increasingly powerful navies, could become a flashpoint down the road — possibly with ramifications that reach beyond the lake's lush shores.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist and columnist who writes about Middle East developments, military affairs, politics, and history. His articles have appeared in a variety of publications focused on the region.

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